So you bought a late-2016 MacBook Pro? Congratulations! So did I! But how will you connect your favorite monitor, hard drives, and other accessories to those pesky new USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports? Read on for my “survival guide”, listing the essential cables and accessories you should (and shouldn’t) buy to go with your new MacBook Pro!
Revisiting USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3
Here’s the TL;DR on those USB Type-C ports on the side of your new MacBook Pro:
- You have two to four USB Type-C ports on your MacBook Pro. “USB-C” is a port and cable spec, but those ports are capable of a lot more than just USB! They’re where you connect power, video, peripherals, and docking stations.
- Unlike the 2015 12″ Retina MacBook, which has USB-only ports, your late-2016 MacBook Pro has Thunderbolt 3 ports which can do a whole lot more! They’re eight times faster, for one thing, and support higher video resolution.1
- It doesn’t matter which of the USB-C ports you use for power. Pick whichever one is convenient. But many third-party USB-C power adapters and docking stations won’t be compatible with your Mac. This is especially true if you bought the 15″ MacBook Pro, which requires 87 Watts and a cable rated for that much, which is more than typical for USB-C cables.2
Late-2016 MacBook Pro Cable Necessities
Since there is a limited assortment of accessories available for the late-2016 MacBook Pro, I thought I would outline the necessities to order along with your new Mac. No doubt better selections will become apparent soon.
You’ll need adapters for existing video and peripherals. You should pick your adapters and cables very carefully, since there are often multiple options for a given connection. I’ll try to stick with the best choice, as defined by the fastest, most-compatible, and least-complex, though not necessarily the cheapest.
Alert: Now that my 2016 MacBook Pro is in my hands, I can confidently say that HDMI support is very flaky so you should use DisplayPort if at all possible!
It’s best to use Apple’s USB-C power adapters, since interoperability of USB-C Power Delivery is at a very early stage. Apple makes good power adapters, and you know they’re going to work. Plus, the Apple power adapters aren’t any more expensive than third-party options.
Note that Apple’s power adapters do not come with cables and that most USB-C cables can’t support the power draw of a MacBook Pro, especially the 15″, 87 Watt model.
For this reason, and to avoid confusion in the cable bag, I recommend buying the Apple USB-C cable to go along with your Apple power adapter. Again, Apple’s cable is only a few bucks more expensive than similar third-party options. Do not buy the Apple USB Charge Cable (2 m) unless you’re only going to use it with the power adapter, since it’s a USB 2.0-only data cable. Instead, I recommend buying a high-quality cable like the Monoprice Select Series 3.1 USB-C to USB-C cable. It supports fast data transfer and a full 100 Watts of charging for just $18 or $25.
Also, the Power Adapter no longer comes with the 1.8 Meter extension cable. If you want one of those, I recommend buying the bulk-packaged cable from OWC for just $6.79. I’ve got a few of these.
Therefore, your expenditure for an additional power adapter will be $87 to $110.79, depending on what you buy.
DisplayPort is a bit more advanced than HDMI at this point, even though the MacBook Pro only supports DisplayPort version 1.2. If your monitor supports DisplayPort, it’s best to connect directly to it using a USB-C Alternate Mode to DisplayPort cable rather than using a dock or adapter. This $35 cable from Monoprice allows the USB-C port to switch to a native DisplayPort connection, sending the raw signal to the monitor, with no additional cables needed.
You could also try the Monoprice Select Series USB-C to DisplayPort adapter for just $15.
Update: I have purchased both of these and can confirm that they work just fine with my monitor, a Dell P2715Q, pushing 3840 x 2160 at 60 Hz. I have had no issues at all with the Monoprice 12908 cable pictured above.
Warning: Reviewers say that HDMI over USB-C Alt Mode has been flaky with the new MacBook Pro. I can confirm that the Monoprice adapter below does not work reliably with the Dell S2715H or P2715Q displays at least. It’s best to try to use DisplayPort if possible since that’s been much more reliable.
If you have a monitor that only supports HDMI, you might be tempted to buy the Apple USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter. But the reviews are really, really bad, so I wouldn’t spend $69 on that. Especially for 15″ MacBook Pro owners, since it won’t pass more than 60 Watts.
Instead, I will be purchasing the Monoprice Select Series USB-C to HDMI adapter for just $15.
Update: I purchased the Monoprice 13235 and it did not work with either of the HDMI monitors I tried. One was not recognized at all and neither displayed any video. Do not buy an HDMI adapter until there’s news of better support!
You should have a few good-quality USB-C cables around in case you need one.
Frankly, the official Apple USB-C to USB-C cable, at just $19, is a great choice. It’s actually cheaper than the Monoprice “Select Series” equivalent, though their shorter palette cable is only $15. Do not buy the 2.0-only USB-C cable from Apple! Instead, get a few Monoprice palette cables for only $15.
Don’t waste your money on cheaper cables, since many can’t handle the data or power that USB-C is capable of delivering. Definitely do not buy “2.0” cables, since they don’t even have all the wires connected inside!
If you have existing Thunderbolt peripherals, you’re in luck! Your new late-2016 MacBook Pro should be fully compatible with them. Just buy the Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter for
$49 $29 (Apple dropped the price!) It works with all existing Thunderbolt peripherals – not just Thunderbolt 2 but the original Thunderbolt, too!
Update: I purchased the Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter and it worked perfectly with my Apple Thunderbolt Ethernet and Thunderbolt FireWire adapters. It’s worth getting it if you have any older Thunderbolt peripherals. However, note that it does not support DisplayPort video, despite having the same connector.
As Thunderbolt 3 peripherals begin to appear, your late-2016 MacBook Pro should work with most of them. But remember – you must use a Thunderbolt 3 cable, not just any old USB-C cable! Apple likes the Belkin cables, but the StarTech cables are cheaper and I’ve had great luck with their previous-generation Thunderbolt cables.
Warning: Thunderbolt 3 peripherals using first-generation Texas Instruments Thunderbolt 3 controllers (TPS65982) are apparently not supported by the MacBook Pro! Do not buy any TB3 peripheral unless you see that it has been tested with the MacBook Pro!
Most existing USB 3 and USB-C Ethernet adapters ought to work with the MacBook Pro. However, since many such devices require a driver to be installed, I recommend buying Apple’s choice of adapter: The Belkin F2CU040. This is a native USB-C device and should work perfectly. Furthermore, I suggest buying it from Apple since they have reduced the price to just $26 through the end of the year!
Update: I purchased the Belkin adapter from the Apple Store and it works perfectly without any driver installs. I also used the Apple Thunderbolt adapter with Apple’s converter and a USB 3 Ethernet adapter which worked but required a driver install. Get the Belkin.
There really isn’t a great FireWire solution for the MacBook Pro right now. Theoretically, you should be able to stack the Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter and the Apple Thunderbolt to FireWire adapter, but this isn’t guaranteed to work. We’ll see. I’ve also pre-ordered the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock, which offers FireWire. I’ll blog about it when it’s released (tentatively February 2017).
Update: I can confirm that the Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 converter does work with the Apple Thunderbolt FireWire adapter.
Most USB SD card readers should work with an adapter.
If you want a native USB-C reader, I suggest buying the one Apple suggests, the SanDisk Extreme Pro reader. And it’s only $29 from Apple right now.
Update: Reports say that the SanDisk reader doesn’t work well. Stick with a converted USB 3 reader for now, or just plug your camera into your computer with an appropriate USB-C to USB cable.
Existing USB 3.0 Peripherals
I’m still a little nervous about “native” USB-C hubs and docks. After all, the early USB 3.0 devices were pretty flaky. Instead, I bought a few USB-C to USB 3.0 adapters and will be using my existing collection of USB 3.0 devices.
I like the idea of the little integrated USB-C to 3.0 USB-A adapters, but the initial reviews have been poor. I bought the Monoprice Select Series USB 3.0 USB-C Male to USB-A Female pigtail for $8 and it works great. In fact, I bought five of them for the whole office!
I also picked up a USB 3.0 USB-C to USB Micro B cable for $6 to use with my USB 3.0 portable hard disk drives. No use carrying around an adapter when the exact correct cable is available! You can also get a USB 3.0 USB-C to USB-B cable for $6 to connect to a full-size USB 3.0 device like my Drobo S.
USB 2.0 Devices
You can just connect your USB 2.0 devices to the USB 3.0 adapter cable above, or you can buy the right cable for the job. I bought a selection: USB 2.0 USB-C to USB Micro B, USB 2.0 USB-C to USB Mini B, and USB 2.0 USB-C to USB-B. At less than $5 per cable, it makes sense to have a set of these on hand.
Stephen’s Shopping List
Expect to spend another $100 or more on cables, dongles, and adapters to get the most from your already-expensive new MacBook Pro. Although USB-C peripherals will become more common in the coming year, I expect my recommendations for video and power adapters will likely hold true for years to come. And I doubt that Thunderbolt 3 will be any more popular than earlier versions of the protocol.
Here’s my MacBook Pro shopping list:
- Apple 87 Watt Power Adapter, $79
Apple 2M USB-C to USB-C Power Cable, $19
- Monoprice USB-C to DisplayPort Cable, $35
Monoprice Select USB-C to HDMI Adapter, $15
- Monoprice Select USB 3.0 USB-C to USB-A Female Cable, $8
- Monoprice USB 3.0 USB-C to USB Micro B Cable, $6
- USB 2.0 USB-C to USB Micro B, $5
- USB 2.0 USB-C to USB Mini B, $5
- USB 2.0 USB-C to USB-B, $5
Yeah, that’s $177 in cables. Just to get started. But I really didn’t need the extra power adapter and cable, and could have skipped many of the others. In fact, I bet I could get by with just the $8 USB-C to USB-A Female Cable! That’s the one really indispensable cable! And you probably want an HDMI Adapter or a DisplayPort adapter – Monoprice has you covered for just $15! So the real minimum expense for your new Mac is just $23. Not as bad as people say, eh?
Note: I don’t get any kickbacks from any of these links. This is simply what I selected and bought. Buy whatever you want from wherever you like. I like Monoprice, despite criticizing them mightily in my previous post… Big special shout-out to Pluggable for their fantastic transparency on the Thunderbolt 3 incompatibility situation!
- The 2015 MacBook with Retina Display has one USB Type-C port supporting USB 3.1 gen 1 connectivity, good for 5 Gbps of USB data and 60 Watts of power. The late-2016 MacBook Pro boasts two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports, supporting USB 3.1 gen 2 connectivity, good for 32 Gbps of Thunderbolt data, 10 Gbps of USB data, up to 87 Watts of power, and a whole lot more! ↩
- If you connect multiple power sources to your MacBook Pro, it will select one and ignore the rest. If you connect a lower-power brick to your 15″ MacBook Pro, it will charge more slowly or not at all. ↩